Airbus Starts Work on Hydrogen Fuel Tanks for Airliners

 - June 14, 2021, 11:43 AM
Airbus is working on fuel tanks for the Zero E hydrogen-powered airliner concepts it is in the early stages of developing. (Image: Airbus)

Airbus is stepping up its work on hydrogen fuel tanks for airliners by setting up a pair of Zero-Emission Development Centers (ZDEC) at Bremen in Germany and Nantes in France. The facilities will aim to establish a cost-competitive approach to manufacturing the cryogenic tanks needed for the Zero E hydrogen-powered airliner that the European airframer is aiming to bring to the market in 2035.

In today’s announcement, Airbus said the ZEDC units will be fully operational by 2023. Their initial goal is to have some liquid hydrogen storage tanks to be used for a first flight test scheduled for 2025.

According to Airbus, its Bremen site already has extensive experience with liquid hydrogen systems through its work supporting the group’s Defence and Space business and the Ariane space division. This facility will focus on system installation and cryogenic testing of the tanks.

The Nantes facility specializes in metallic structures used around the center wing boxes of aircraft. It will be responsible for developing metallic and composite technology to be integrated into the hydrogen tanks. This operation will be supported by engineering expertise at the nearby Nantes Technocentre.

The fuel tanks will be a safety-critical component in the planned Zero E airliners. Liquid hydrogen is more challenging from the point of view of storing as it needs to be kept at minus 418-deg F. The gas needs to be liquefied to be efficiently stored in the aircraft, and the tanks need to be able to withstand repeated thermal and pressure cycling. Initially, the tanks are likely to be metallic, but Airbus is exploring the potential to use carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composites.

Meanwhile, last week, Airbus joined with aircraft engine maker Safran, Dassault Aviation, French aerospace research institute ONERA, and the French transport ministry to launch flight trials to assess the compatibility of unblended sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) with single-aisle airliners, their engines, and fuel systems. The planned flights will be conducted towards the end of 2021 with funding from the French government’s Plan de relance aéronautique Covid recovery fund.

According to the partners, the VOLCAN project (a French acronym for "fly with new alternative fuels"), the tests will be the first in which inflight emissions will be measured on an aircraft burning 100 percent SAF. They will involve an A320neo aircraft powered by CFM Leap-1A turbofans. Helicopter engines will also be tested.

Safran’s involvement will focus on compatibility studies related to the fuel system and the adaptation of the engines. ONERA will analyze the compatibility of the SAF with aircraft systems and will be in charge of handling test results. Dassault Aviation will contribute to the material and equipment compatibility studies and verify the susceptibility of SAF to biocontamination.